When we talk nuclear physics to most people their eyes will glaze over with either lack of understanding or fear of the unknown. In fact it is quite simple. Uranium, its most common fuel, is radioactive, which means it naturally decays or fissions. This is the process of splitting atoms which releases heat that can turn water into steam to turn a turbine to create electricity.
Nuclear’s land footprint is small, only a tiny fraction of the land required to gain energy from wind or sun. A typical 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant requires less than a square mile (640 acres) to operate. To produce that amount of power from wind you need 1000, 2.5 megawatt wind turbines operating at their maximum efficiency of 30% which will require 350 square miles. To gain that from the sun you need 3 million solar panels spread across 175 square miles of land.
The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying the world’s growing need for electricity. While the US is truly awash in oil and gas and coal as well, the rest of the world is not so lucky. Fortunately outside of the US there is renewed interest in building nuclear power plants.
Misunderstood safety concerns are beginning to fade from memory. The once well known event at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania resulted from faulty instrumentation that gave erroneous readings for the reactor vessel environment. After a series of equipment failures and human errors, the reactor core was compromised, and it underwent a partial meltdown.
Even so, radioactive water released from the reactor core was safely confined within the containment building structure, and very little radiation was released into the environment.
The Three Mile Island incident actually underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants: The safety devices worked as designed and prevented any injury from occurring to humans, animals, or the environment anywhere near the its location.
Moreover, the accident directly resulted in further improvements in procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems. U.S. nuclear reactor power plants are now substantially safer as a result. Three Mile Island’s Unit One is still operating with an impeccable record.
Chernobyl an Anomaly
The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion. If such an explosion were to have occurred in a Western nuclear power plant, it would have been contained because all Western plants are required to have a containment building—a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete completely encapsulating the nuclear reactor vessel.
The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure, and so the explosion blew off the top of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air.
It was not the explosion, however, but the subsequent fire that spread radioisotopes around the area. The graphite reactor burned ferociously—which could not have happened if the plant had included a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.
The design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity under operating conditions. This means when control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down instead of speeding up, making such a runaway accident impossible.
The flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the United States or any other Western country, and the accident that occurred there simply could not occur elsewhere.
The circumstances surrounding the accident were in many ways the worst possible, with an exposed reactor core, an open building, and poorly trained operators. Forty nine plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure at Chernobyl.
Public Effects Were Minor
In September 2000, the United Nations’ Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly , a document of some 1,220 pages in that deals with exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident.
Apart from about 1,800 thyroid cancer cases registered in children and in some adults—of which more than 99 percent were cured—the U.N. report concluded there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident. The very same result was experienced after the tragedy at Fukushima in 2011where as many as 20,000 died from flooding and pollution from the tsunami but not one from radiation.
At Fukushima there has been no increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia, which due to its short latency time is a good indicator of radiation harm. It has not been elevated among the approximately five million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers.
No deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the population of the contaminated regions.
In fact, cancer incidence rates over the most-contaminated regions of Ukraine near Chernobyl have been consistently lower than rates in the country as a whole. The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers have also been lower than among the general population. This is why radiation therapy exists in medicine. While a lot is very bad, a little can be very good
This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts, where small doses of radiation received far from ground zero produced lower cancer rates than among the general population. It is also consistent with medical research indicating low-dose radiation actually serves to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.
The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past 25 years by individuals in the most-contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union (about 1 mSv per year) is 10 to 100 times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions.
While clearly there have been fatalities related to mining coal, drilling for oil and burning natural gas, it turns out that nuclear power has surprisingly been the safest way to produce electricity. In the US, however, it can no longer compete economically with fossil fuel due to unnecessary redundant safety requirements. Fortunately other countries like France, Korea and China are producing nuclear power safely at much lower costs.
France gets 75% of its power from its nuclear power plants and is the largest exporter of electricity in Europe. It had been a major importer until the late 1970s when they began building their nuclear program. Waste from nuclear plants is extremely small. France’s nuclear waste from 56 power plants is heated to become a form of glass which sits beneath a single building smaller than a basketball court. All the waste from twice as many plants in the US over 60 years would fit on a football field at a depth of less than 30 feet. A facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was built to store all our waste for thousands of years but politics and former President Obama stopped its use.
Currently over 200 nuclear power plants are in some stage of construction around the world to be added to more than 400 now in operation. Unfortunately only two are in the United States and their completion remains in doubt because of unnecessary construction requirements which make them uneconomical. Clearly natural gas is so abundant and inexpensive in the US that nuclear power can’t compete. But if we are not building some nuclear power plants we will lose our high level of technology to other countries along with well trained nuclear engineers.